THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR AND THE BLACK WORKER, 1936–1945
By incessant appeals and expensive litigation, blacks fought racial discrimination in the AFL unions during World War II. The AFL representative of the FEPC regularly opposed any action against unions which practiced discrimination. When the Smith Committee, headed by Howard Smith, the segregationist, antilabor congressman from Virginia, held hearings to discredit the FEPC, leaders of key AFL unions readily appeared as witnesses to complain against the government agency forcing unions to practice racial equality.
The railroad brotherhoods, the Building and Metal Trades Councils, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers were among the worst of the unions for practicing racial discrimination, although they were not alone. In 1942, it was reported that nineteen international unions, ten of which were affiliated with the AFL, practiced racial discrimination against black workers. Even when unions pledged nondiscrimination in their charters, they often employed subtle means, such as the initiation oath, to exclude Negroes. Representative of the attitude in many of the trade unions was that of William Hutcheson of the carpenters’ union, who retorted to charges of racial bias: “In our union we don’t care whether your’re an Irishman, a Jew, or a Nigger.”
Meanwhile, at AFL conventions during the war years, A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, continued their efforts to end racial discrimination in the federation. At nearly every convention the “Randolph resolution” called for the AFL to establish an investigative committee to inquire into charges that affiliates employed such practices, but for the most part the delegates refused to comply. When Randolph and Webster introduced their resolution again at the 1941 convention, a heated debate developed. Randolph listed case after case in which AFL unions discriminated against black workers, but the response was that the convention could not intrude upon the rights of autonomous unions.
At the 1942 convention, Randolph again presented a detailed summary of the facts on discrimination, but once again he failed to get action. The 1943 convention was again the scene of a heated debate on the Negro labor issue. As at previous conventions, Randolph attacked the AFL’s lack of action, and condemned auxiliary unions as the equivalents of “colonies.” The union leaders responded by denouncing Randolph for being a “professional Negro” and “troublemaker” at a time when unity in the ranks of labor was essential for a victory over fascism. William Green, president of the AFL, brought the debate to a close with a gesture to Randolph. He conceded that problems existed, but lectured Randolph that change could not come without much time and education. The same outcome followed a repeat performance of the Randolph-AFL debate at the 1944 convention, with Green again counseling black workers that they would have to wait and practice “good judgement” during the interim.
By the end of World War II, not much had changed for blacks in AFL unions. As sociologist Gunnar Myrdal put it: “The fact that the American Federation of Labor as such is officially against racial discrimination does not mean much. The Federation has never done anything to check racial discrimination exercised by its member organizations,”148